Capitalizing on transparency: Commercial surveillance and pharmaceutical marketing after the Physician Sunshine Act

Shai Mulinari, Piotr Ozieranski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (SciVal)


How corporations surveil and influence consumers using big data tools is a major area of research and public debate. However, few studies explore it in relation to physicians in the USA, even though they have been surveilled and targeted by the pharmaceutical industry since at least the 1950s. Indeed, in 2010, concerns about the pharmaceutical industry's undue influence led to the passing of the Physician Sunshine Act, a unique piece of transparency legislation that requires companies to report their financial ties to physicians and teaching hospitals in a public database. This article argues that while the Sunshine Act has clearly helped expose important commercial influences on both prescribing and the scale of industry involvement with physicians, it has also, paradoxically, fuelled further commercial surveillance and marketing. The article casts new light on innovative pharmaceutical marketing approaches and the key role of data brokers and analytics companies in the identification, targeting, managing, and surveillance of physicians. We place this analysis within the political economies of the pharmaceutical industry, surveillance-based marketing, and transparency, and argue that policies to promote increased transparency must be tightly tied to policies that impede the commodification and use of transparency data for surveillance and marketing purposes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalBig Data and Society
Issue number1
Early online date9 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by the Vetenskapsrådet (grant number 2020-01822).

Funding Information:
SM's partner is employed by ICON, a global Contract Research Organization whose customers include many pharmaceutical companies. PO's PhD student was supported by a grant from Sigma Pharmaceuticals, a UK pharmacy wholesaler and distributor (not a pharmaceutical company). The PhD work funded by Sigma Pharmaceuticals is unrelated to the subject of this paper.


  • artificial intelligence
  • marketing
  • pharmaceutical industry
  • Sunshine Act
  • Surveillance
  • transparency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Information Systems and Management
  • Library and Information Sciences


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